A Time for More Hoover

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Over the past eight years, U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney has belched out so many ill-digested public pronouncements that you might assume neither Russians nor Americans could be surprised anymore by his misstatements. Hah. During a recent debate over subsidizing U.S. automakers, Cheney reportedly blurted out apocalyptically that without a massive corporate bailout, "It's Herbert Hoover time."

Say what? For Russians sliding ever deeper into recession, such a statement could prompt massive head scratching. Many Muscovites would have difficulty imagining anything better today than a return to "Herbert Hoover time." Less than a century ago, Hoover almost single-handedly bailed Russia out of a crisis more severe than the current one, saving millions of Russian lives in the process.

Americans recall Hoover as an honest and capable administrator, who as president inherited an incipient economic crisis and struggled mightily to solve it.

This contrasts markedly with Cheney, a relentlessly devious manipulator whose administration began with unprecedented national wealth and global power, only to squander them away through greed and incompetence. How many victims of the serial frauds of the Bush-Cheney era -- Enron, Katrina, weapons of mass destruction, subprime mortgages, the financial meltdown and so on -- have wished too late that someone of Hoover's decency and diligence had been minding the national store?

The Bush-Cheney paradigm, in the end, may be simply America-as-Ponzi scheme -- a "Madoff economy" as New York Times columnist and current Nobel Prize laureate Paul Krugman coined it -- with an ill-conceived, open-ended "war on terror" to distract the citizen-suckers' attention. But however historians (and the judiciary) finally categorize this ghastly mess, one point seems unarguable: When Cheney conjures Hoover as a fiscal bogeyman, his skill at historical analogy rivals his aim with a shotgun.

Deadeye Dick aside, it is both timely and appropriate to invoke Hoover now, since his work in Russia recalls two things well worth remembering -- what Americans do best and how U.S. and Russian leaders can cooperate, despite differences, when the need arises.

When a devastating famine hit newly Bolshevized Russia in 1921, the United States responded by sending the American Relief Administration, with Hoover as director, to salvage a nation nearing total collapse. Under Hoover's strong and skilled administrative hand, a corps of 300 ARA workers fed some 10 million Russians, and they accomplished this modern-day loaves-and-fishes miracle under almost impossible conditions. One ARA worker wrote home of the mission's continuous struggle "against dishonesty, trickery, demoralization, incompetence, apathy, famine, typhus, etc.," concluding "God help us all."

The Lord helps those who help themselves, of course, and Hoover's "can-do, energetic, efficient" cadres eventually brought off "one of the greatest deeds of charity that history records," as one observer put it. To realize this grand-scale altruism, however, the conservative Republican Hoover had to collaborate with a government that he opposed, both intellectually and viscerally, knowing that this devil's bargain might well help legitimize, or at least temporarily stabilize, the ignoble Soviet experiment.

Why did he do it? "To Hoover," a U.S. specialist surmised, "the rescue of a million children was worth the risk of a temporary reprieve of the regime." Amen. After studying ARA archives, historian Nana Tsikhelashvili concluded, "Hoover really and truly believed that by setting this example, the Americans of the ARA could change the course of history in the Soviet Union by peaceful means." Hoover, it seems, was applying "soft power" before it had a name.

The Soviet government, of course, had no way of divining Hoover's motives and no assurance that the ARA was not simply more Western intervention into Russia -- not with armies this time but a "humanitarian" Trojan horse. And yet the group was let in and granted organizational independence -- the only such foreigners the Bolsheviks so trusted -- and was eventually thanked with appropriate ceremony for its lifesaving work.

Which raises a question: If Hoover, Lenin and Trotsky could successfully cooperate to serve a greater good -- despite ideological enmity, distrust and no state-to-state relations -- why have recent Russian and U.S. leaders, lacking serious impediments, had such difficulty doing the same thing? Are international terrorism and the spread of nuclear weapons, for example, just not worth the effort? While we're pondering that one, "Hoover time" sounds pretty good.

Mark H. Teeter teaches English and Russian-American relations in Moscow.